In a move seen as a foreign policy embarrassment for Senator Obama’s vice-presidential running mate, the Senate staff of Senator Joe Biden was said to be involved in stopping  the Voice of America (VOA) radio programs to Russia just 12 days before Moscow launched its military attack on Georgia.  VOA is an  international broadcasting service funded by the U.S. Government which airs radio programs mostly to countries experiencing political repression and press censorship.

According to a source within the bipartisan but Bush-appointed Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which manages VOA and other government sponsored U.S. broadcasting, Senator Biden’s staff has worked behind the scenes with the BBG staff to kill VOA Russian radio broadcasts and almost succeeded in closing down VOA radio service to Georgia.

The Senate staff of Senator Biden,  whom Senator Obama selected primarily because of his strong foreign policy experience, is said to have told the BBG staff that it would be safe to terminate VOA broadcasts to Russia and to say that the Congress was “on board” with this decision.  Other than Senator Biden, most members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, however, have been strongly opposed to the BBG-proposed  Voice of America radio and television programming cuts to media-at-risk countries.

On July 17, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) warned the BBG and the Bush Administration not to stop VOA radio broadcasts  to Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tibet and to the Balkans, “where freedom of speech remains restricted and broadcasting is still necessary.” The BBG ignored his warning and terminated VOA radio to Russia on July 26 without making any public announcements. Russian tanks rolled into Georgia on August 8.

According to FreeMediaOnline.org, a media freedom non-profit, Senator Biden’s staff  is said to have worked with a few members of the BBG and the board’s executive director, Jeff Trimble, to deprive the Voice of America of resources to broadcast on-air radio to Russia in favor of a semi-private entity, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which is based in Prague, the Czech Republic, and has a large news bureau in Moscow staffed by Russian citizens. RFE/RL is incorporated in Delaware, Senator Biden’s home state. Senator Biden’s former chief of staff, Edward E. Kaufman, is a BBG member. Another BBG member, Jeff Hirschberg, also a Democrat, is a director of the U.S.-Russia Business Council, according to the BBG website. The BBG’s executive director was formerly acting president of RFE/RL.

FreeMediaOnline.org president, Ted Lipien, a former acting VOA associate director who had worked also for the BBG, placing VOA, RFE/RL, and other BBG-sponsored programs in Russia, Bosnia, Afghanistan  and Iraq, said that stopping VOA radio to Russia is seen as a “gift to Mr. Putin for his crackdown on independent media.” Lipien wrote a book about Pope John Paul II, in which he described communist secret police attempts to spy on the Vatican and influence Western media reporting. He warned that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalists, whom he described as having a great record of fighting press censorship during the Cold War and still doing an outstanding job in some places and in individual cases, have now been exposed as a group working in Russia to intimidation by the Russian secret police.

Lipien blamed the BBG for putting RFE/RL in a dangerous position in Russia and in several other media-at-risk countries. He said that the Board’s action, in which Senator Biden’s staff is said to be involved, has seriously undermined the ability of the American people to communicate with the Russian people in peacetime and in any future crisis.

Since the Russian attack on Georgia, the BBG has agreed to continue VOA radio broadcasts to Georgia “for the forseeable future” but, according to FreeMediaOnline.org sources, it has refused as “a non starter” urgent pleas from VOA journalists to resume broadcasts to Russia. Due to budget restrictions ordered by the BBG, only four VOA Georgian broadcasters were left to respond to the crisis. FreeMediaOnline.org reported that they have been working with hardly any days off to produce an expanded 60 minute daily broadcast.

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